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October 01, 2015
By Alexander Lucas

It has been 10 years since laptop computers surpassed desktop computers in sales, and according to Gartner, tablets should surpass laptop and desktop combined sales this year. With the recent introduction of the iPad Pro, we also see continued evolution of size and power in these devices. But where did it all begin?

Over the next several Technology Throwback Thursdays, I will look into the past and reveal the earliest days of mobile computing. It is interesting to see how long this mobile future has been in the vision of computing pioneers and how the various successes and failures have molded this evolution.

The Osborne 1

To start this series, I want to talk about the first mass-produced portable computer, the Osborne 1.

At the time, the Osborne 1 was fairly revolutionary. Released in June 1981, the Osborne 1 was a self-contained computer in a plastic case. It included a fold-down full-sized keyboard, a five-inch (diagonal) monitor, modem port and two floppy drives. Plug it into power and you were ready to go. While decently priced at $1,795, it also came preloaded with about $1,500 worth of free software.

Understandably, the computer was a moderate success, surpassing $72 million in revenue in its first year.

How portable was it?

The machine did have a number of drawbacks, however. The “portable” computer was nearly 25 pounds, so hardly a “lap top” computer (though this term wouldn’t be used until 1983). The five-inch monitor could only display 52 characters of text per line, yet the WordStar word processing application was 80 columns wide, meaning the screen would shift back and forth.

Even the creator of the Osborne 1 was critical of his machine:

“We’re producing a machine whose performance is merely adequate when compared to the competition. It is not the fastest microcomputer, it doesn’t have huge amounts of disk space, and it is not especially expandable.”

The Osborne Effect

Competitors quickly sprang up into this “portable” market and the Osborne Computer Corporation announced a successor computer that would have a larger screen and more memory storage. However, the model was not yet ready for production. People stopped buying the Osborne 1 in anticipation of the Osborne Vixen, and the company quickly fell into bankruptcy. This gave rise to what is known as “Osborne Effect,” preannouncing hardware before it exists and seeing sales slow in anticipation.

The reality of the situation was that competition was producing cheaper, better machines and leadership made some unfortunate decisions. While Osborne’s company folded, the Osborne’s place in computer history is set.

In future posts I will go into the first machine to be marketed as a laptop, the first designs of tablet computing in the 1960s and other milestones in mobile computing. In the meantime, check out some of these other articles dealing with mobile devices, wearables and on-the-go telecommunication:

A self-styled storyteller, Alexander Lucas loves to share his vast knowledge of tech, innovation and design trivia. TEKsystems’ resident video designer is also an avid history buff and writes about technology innovation through time.

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